Monday, October 27, 2014

First days in Taipei

Bob and I are in Taipei, Taiwan, for nearly two weeks (Bob has a 5 day-long conference, ISMIR, and we are staying for an additional week). We arrived on Saturday after two long flights and one long (5 + hours) lay-over in Dubai. Bob's conference takes place in the HUGE Grand Hotel.

Truly, this hotel is giant. It sits on the side of a very lush, steep hill. In fact, most of this large city is covered in lush vegetation. It reminds me a lot of Hawai'i: very green, lots of steep hills, dramatic mountains, quite warm (even in late October it's in the high 20s C/80s F), and very, very humid (it's 75% humidity today). In fact, both Bob and I need to buy some clothes while we're here as we don't have enough shorts/skirts with us, and there is no way I am going to wear jeans in this weather!

We arrived on Saturday early evening. After nearly 20 hours of traveling, we were both quite tired, so after getting settled into our apartment, we headed to the Shilin Night Market for a bite to eat. The night market (one of many night markets in Taipei) is directly across from where we're staying, which is quite convenient. We managed to stay awake until 22:00, which helped us get into the schedule.

After waking up early on Sunday, we headed out to do a bit of exploring and to acquaint ourselves with the city. We are staying in the Shilin district, the northern part of Taipei. We headed a bit south to visit the Confucius Temple. Constructed in the late 1920s, the temple is dedicated to the Chinese philosopher.

 The temple and surrounding buildings are beautiful. The craftsmanship is amazing; the dragons, flowers, and other figures are so detailed and brightly colored.

 Right across from the Confucius Temple is the Buddhist Bao'an Temple. A Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award recipient, this temple is also beautiful. Though founded in 1760, the current temple was renovated in 1995-2002.

Many people were leaving offerings at the temple. In addition to offerings of flowers and prayers, people also left sweets, cakes, and a plate of tofu, pork, and an egg. A stick of incense was speared into the tofu.

The sites and the city are great, but truth be told, the best part of the trip so far has been the food. Prior to arriving in Taipei, Bob and I had already had a fantastic introduction to Taiwanese food via Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles. In fact, Din Tai Fung is on the list of places we MUST go when we fly to LA to visit family (it's up there with BCD Tofu House in Korea Town, half-price sushi in Burbank, and Mexican food everywhere). In Taipei, we start our day off with breakfast from 7/11 (similar to the breakfasts we had in Japan): cartons of coffee (the coffee drinks here are sold cold, sweet, and milky, which is perfect for the hot weather) and onigiri (rice triangles filled with a variety of savory items like pork, duck, or fish, all wrapped in seaweed).

There is plenty of opportunity for snacking here. Aside from the convenience shops like 7/11, there are many stalls selling fresh fruits, smoothies, and other healthy things. We happened upon a farmer's market while walking, and Bob's 8th sense (his pomelo sense; Bob's 6th sense is for coffee, 7th is for stamps) instantly found a pomelo stand. These were the largest pomelos I've every seen! The one we bought weighed 2 kg/4.4 lb. After struggling for 5 minutes to peel it (we normally peel pomelos with a knife, but we didn't have one on us), Bob and I dug in to this king of citruses.

For lunch we stumbled across a fantastic local spot. We spent the first 10 minutes trying to match the Chinese characters to words we know (soup dumplings, pork, beef) until Bob smartly asked for an English menu. We ordered: Chinese beef burrito (their name, not ours); corn and pork wontons; steamed soup dumplings with pork; and spicy beef noodle soup. Oh my gods, this was good! In fact, when Bob asked me what the best part of the day was, I responded without hesitation that lunch was the best part of the day.



In the evening, we met with Bob's Austrian colleague and friend Arthur. We walked around our local Shilin Night Market, where we tried a variety of food: different kinds of steamed dumplings, grilled mushrooms, an interesting drink make from bitter melon gourd, and many other things. We also tried the pictured pork-wrapped scallions. Everything is quite cheap (the scallion thing was only 20 Taiwanese dollars, or $0.66), and most things are sold in small quantities, which I love. It means I can gets lots of different things!

For dessert we had a Taiwanese specialty: snow ice. Said to have been invented in the Shilin Night Market, snow ice is basically shaved ice cream. You get the texture of Hawai'ian shave ice but with the flavor and mouth-feel of creamy ice cream. It's heaven. Bob and I shared this lychee-flavored snow ice. There were many other flavors available, so I plan on trying a new one every night!

This trip is off to a great start.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Cooking classes in London


In July, Bob and I spent two week in London. Like our previous trips to London, we stayed in East London at the Queen Mary University campus, where Bob was doing research. For the first week, I hung out, visiting museums and cafes and enjoying the city. The second week, though, was my big week; I took a week-long course at Leith's School of Food and Wine! I enrolled in the intermediate cooking skills course, and I had such a great time! For 5 days, I cooked new recipes, learned and practiced new techniques, and met some fun people. We spent half the day in the large kitchens, which you can see above. We worked at work stations with 3 other students, receiving assistance from the school's chefs. The other half of the day was spent in a demonstration kitchen, where we'd sit at desks and the chefs would cook multiple things to show us new techniques that we'd apply in the kitchen.


Throughout the week we made many different things, ranging from baking to frying, appetizers to mains, breads to desserts. I'll try to cover some of what we did here! On the first day we learned how to make choux pastry, a pasty that is used to make both sweet pastries, like éclairs and profiteroles, and savory pastries, like gougères. After learning how to make the basic pastry dough, we made savory gougères filled with prosciutto and eggplant. These make for lovely appetizers or first courses.

We also learned how to prepare a rack of lamb. We had to prep a 6-bone rack, which involved lots of cutting through and trimming of fat. We then prepared a mustard and herb crust for the rack, which baked to perfection!


We learned how to prepare whole fish. I de-scaled, de-gutted, de-gilled, and filleted this sea bass, which was served with curried lentils. For the fish, aside from learning how to do the dirty work, I mostly learned how that it's important to befriend your local fish monger (so he/she can do all the dirty work in a fraction of the time)!


We also prepared monkfish, which we served with an herb hollandaise sauce and spinach. I learned a new technique for making hollandaise, which involves creating a different type of bain-marie (water bath). I will definitely employ this method, which applies much less heat than using a traditional bain-marie, when I next cook hollandaise.

Aside from appetizers and mains, we also made a few first courses, like the above summer rolls and the duck salad. I really liked the duck salad: seared duck breast, lots of fresh herbs, fried rice noodles, chili, grapefruits segments, and a sweet star anise sauce.

We learned quite a bit about baking in the course. We learned a new mixing technique for pastry crusts which has been so useful for our warm summer, when butter melts if you look at it funny. We also made breads and sweet loafs, like the pictured pear and Amaretto loaf cake.
We also made a lot of desserts, including this hazelnut meringue cake with a raspberry melba sauce. I LOVE the raspberry melba sauce, but found the cake too sweet.

On the last day, we tackled tarte tartin. Can you tell which of the below tartes is mine and which is the teachers? I have since tried to make this tarte at home, but it didn't go quite as well. I think my burner was on too high (it's a bit tough trying to apply things learned on a gas stove to an electric stove, and in a few weeks I'll be working on induction!), but I don't think Bob will mind if I take a few more practice runs!

 
All in all, it was a fantastic week. I would highly recommend the course, and I hope I can take more in the future!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Klitgården/Easter Weekend

It's remarkable how behind I am on posts for our blog! Sorry for the long absence; we were really busy with work throughout June, then we were out of town for two weeks (which will be another blog post, hopefully soon!). We spent one week of holiday just hanging out in Copenhagen, which was a lot more fun than I expected it to be! But now we are back at work and normal life, so it's time to get back to blogging.

Waaaay back in April, we spent the long Easter weekend at an artists' retreat in northern Jutland ('continental' Denmark, which connects to Germany in the south). On the northern most tip of Denmark, where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea, is the town of Skagen. Skagen has been inhabited since the Middle Ages, and is now Denmark's primary fishing port. Many Copenhageners holiday in Skagen, and this includes the royalty! In the 1910s, King Christian X and his wife Queen Alexandrine liked Skagen so much that they built a summer house there, called Klitgården (pictured here). Klitgården translates to The Dune House. The house is right on the beach and is surrounded by sand dunes.
Here you can see photos of King Christian X and Queen Alexandrine, who spent many holidays (especially Easter, like us!) at Klitgården. The home was completed in 1914. It was kept in the royal family until 1995, when it was sold and turned into an artists' and scientists' retreat. Our university supports some of its employees to stay there, and we were fortunate enough to be approved to stay over the Easter holiday.
All of the furniture inside Klitgården is original, dating back to 1914. Here you can see a reading nook, complete with arts-and-crafts style chairs, bench, table, and book shelf. My Dad loves arts-and-crafts furniture and builds his own, so I was excited to take a lot of photos to send to him!
In the dining room you can find the 55 ornamental plates that were commissioned by the King and created by Harald Slott-Møller. Each plate is unique and has a design based around a zodiac sign, Danish coats of arms, traditional Danish costumes, or Danish market towns.
This room was the King and Queen's bedroom, which has been converted to a conference room. You can still find the original closet. The small table/stool in the middle was the bed-side table that held the chamber pot. It is now used for holding the projector!
There was some beautiful glass work in the stairwell, which created lovely colors inside at sunset.
I loved the doorframes in the house.
This is an example of a bed-side table that would have held a chamber pot. The tables are still in all of the rooms, but the chamber pots have since been removed. Thankfully, there is in-door plumbing throughout the house.

The scenery around the house is really beautiful. The sand dunes go on for miles and miles. We were able to take a nice walk around, though we were sure to watch out for sand snakes!
About 1.5 km/1 mile through the dunes from Klitgården is Den Tilsandede Kirke  (The Buried Church in English, or The Sand-Covered Church).
This 14th century church was gradually buried by the moving sand dunes, so that by the 18th century, the entrance had to be dug out before every service. In 1795 the church was abandoned and demolished except for this lone bell tower.
Bob was inspired by the Buried Church and painted a picture of it in our atelier (he used some brick dust to create the red color of the roof of the church's tower). So, the atelier... this is actually where we stayed and slept! Just outside of the building of Klitgården are three ateliers built into a sand dune. When Bob applied to stay there, he stated that he wanted to compose and paint during his visit. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to use the piano (the piano was in the living room of the house, and Bob was told that he couldn't play it as it might disturb the writers that were staying in the house). So Bob spent his time drawing, sketching, and painting with water colors. Bob has been keeping this up all summer and he's produced some really cool works! It was a bit odd at first to sleep on the cots in the atelier, but we soon got used to it.
The town of Skagen is really lovely. The town has attracted artists for hundreds of years due to the stormy waters, soft rolling sand dunes, and beautiful light that is unique to Skagen. Many famous Danish painters spent time in Skagen. The town hosts an impressive museum, many small artists' studios, and lots of public art. This sculpture was created to honor the long fishing history of Skagen. The sculptor used a fisherman from another town as the model, and this nearly created riots in Skagen! When the sculpture finally went it, it required a police escort to keep it from being vandalized. Ah, to live in a time when art aroused such emotions in people...
This is the point where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea. On some days when the tides are strong, you can see a distinct line where the two seas come crashing into each other.
There were also a lot of WW2 German bunkers around the point. You might remember from our 2012 trip to Jutland that there are bunkers all along the entire western coast of Denmark. They can be a bit dangerous: collapsing structures, and even some unexploded mines and grenades! But this particular bunker acted as a hospital to the German soldiers. It's now open as a museum.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Grand Champagne Adventure (aka leaving my 20s with a bang)

For the past few years, I've dreamt of taking a bike tour of the Champagne region. It's easy to understand why I wanted to do this: I LOVE champagne, I LOVE France, and I like biking. After a few years of pestering, I was finally able to talk our good Danish friends Thomas and Thomas into joining us on the trip, and then arranged it so the trip fell on my 30th birthday. I figured that if I absolutely had to turn 30, I might as well do so surrounded by good friends and great alcohol!
So off we went to Paris to begin our trip. We spent a few days in the city, and my birthday fell on one of the Paris days. We celebrated in our ridiculously fancy hotel room (thanks, Mom!) with a bottle of Bollinger Rosé champagne. We then had a great dinner at Bistro Paul Bert.
I don't think I will ever get tired of Paris. The culture, the food, the wine, the streets... everything is simply wonderful. I have two absolute favorite things to do when in Paris: stuff my face with delicious things and walk around the city, meandering down small side streets and discovering something new at every turn.
After a few days in Paris, we took a short train ride to Reims to begin our trip. In Reims we visited the beautiful Reims Cathedral. The Cathedral was built in 1211 on the site of a burned-down basilica. In this basilica, St. Remi baptized Clovis in 496, making Clovis the first Catholic king of France.
The cathedral is really quite stunning. It is decorated with over 2300 statues, including the Smiling Angel, pictured here. We found the statue next to the Smiling Angel quite amusing, as the top of its head is very precisely lobbed off. In fact, many of the statues were decapitated during the French revolution. Restorers have tried to match the heads to the bodies, but haven't been 100% successful, so many statues are headless.
The stained glass inside the cathedral is stunning, and the styles are really varied. The area around Reims was known for its great glass production, and that tradition seems to live on today.
Both this window and the above window were created by Brigitte Simon, who was born and raised in Reims in the 1920s. She was commissioned by the cathedral from the 1960s-1980s to create windows, and they are some of my favorite.
The famous artist Marc Chagall was also commissioned to create several windows for the cathedral.  His use of primary colors in this window reminds me of the Matisse chapel in Vence (southern France, just outside of Nice).
This window is more similar to Chagall's work in the UN building, where he was commissioned to create a stained glass piece.
Ok, enough culture, let's get to the real reason for the trip: champagne! Our very first tour and tasting took place at Pommery in Reims. The tour in the Pommery cave was very interesting, even though it was in French. We learned about the three grapes used to make champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier), how the grapes are pressed and fermented, and how the the second fermentation takes place inside the champagne bottle. We got to see the pictured 'Champagne Library', where they keep bottles from every year of production. In this photo you can see bottles as old as 1898! We tasted 5 different Pommery champagnes (on a side note, I need to explain the grading system we used throughout the trip for all of the champagne we tasted. We used the Danish academic grading scale, which is a 7-point scale from -3 to 12 (yeah, I know, it makes no sense), with the following grades possible: -3, 00, 02, 04, 07, 10, and 12. In Denmark, a 02 is passing, so only -3 and 00 are 'bad' grades). Here are the five champagnes we tasted, the grapes used (if known) and their Danish grades:
Brut Royal - 1/3 of each grape - 02
Prestie - 04
Millésimé 2005 - 07
Wintertime - 10
Apanage Rosé - 04
After a really, really fantastic meal (and surprisingly not expensive) at the Reims restaurant Eveil des Sens, we rested up for the start of the biking adventure. The next day we left Reims and headed towards Tours-sur-Marne, about 50 km away. Along the way we stopped in the town of Verzenay and visited the champagne museum placed inside the Phare de Verzenay (the lighthouse of Verzenay). It was at the museum that we really learned about the process of growing, picking, making, and selling champagne. In the photo, you can see a vineyard with a windmill on top. Notice how the windmill is on top of a small hill? Well, this 'small hill' did not feel so small on a bike, and it was just a taste of what was to come in the days ahead! It turns out the Champagne region is not nice and flat, but rather hilly. In fact, the vines are only grown on inclines... all of the valleys are planted with wheat and vegetables!
After a very cold picnic in Verzenay, we continued biking towards the very small town of Trépail, where we met with champagne maker David Léclapart. David is a brilliant guy: all of his champagnes are organic (and most are biodynamic), he runs the entire operation by himself, and he makes the most amazing champagne. He is also an incredibly friendly and generous guy. He took two hours out of his day to give us a tour and tasting. He drove us to his vines and explained the entire process of growing them, picking them, and the affect of the different terroirs.
He then took us to his 'cave', which was a large garage connected to his home. Here he ages and ferments the grape juice in oak barrels, concrete containers, and steel containers. He gave us tastings of the fermenting juice in its various stages.
He then took us into his living room and let us try three of his champagnes (David produces around 11.000 bottles/year). All of his champagnes are made from 100% chardonnay grapes, and they are all vintage (the juice used to make the champagne comes from one harvest). These champagnes turned out to be our favorite of the entire trip:
L'amateur 2010 - 100% tank ages - 10
Artiste 2009 - 1/2 tank aged, 1/2 oak ages - 12 (the top grade!)
L'apôtre 2008 - 100% oak aged - 10
After spending the night in Tour-sur-Marne, we hopped back on our bikes for the shortest and easier bike day: 13 km along a very flat canal! The weather started to improve as well (previously it had been cold, rainy, and windy... in other words, very Danish-like weather). We biked through the town of Aÿ, which is a very famous champagne town. Unfortunately, we arrived in town at 11:30, and in this part of France, everything is closed from 12:00-14:30 for an extended lunch. We were therefore unable to do any tastings in Aÿ, but we did go by the Bollinger house (which doesn't have public tastings anyways). If only James Bond was with us, then I'm sure we could have had a tour.
We then continued on to Epernay, a really beautiful city in the heart of the Champagne region. Epernay is home to a lot of big champagne houses, including Mercier. Though Mercier made our least favorite champagne, they had the most impressive cave. Over 18 km of underground tunnels hold the Mercier champagnes. Eugène Mercier, who founded the champagne house in 1871, was a really interesting guy (and slightly crazy); he wanted to make the cave an enjoyable work place, so he hired an artist to create frescoes throughout the tunnels. We tasted one champagne:
Brut - 45% pinot noir, 45% pinot meunier, 10% chardonnay - 04
After visiting Mercier, we headed towards another of the big champagne houses in Epernay: Moët et Chandon/Dom Perignon. Founded by Claude Moët in 1743, Moët is the biggest producer of champagne in the world. Their cave stretches for an impressive 23 km, making it the biggest cave in the entire Champagne region.
Dom Perignon is under the Moët company, though they are very different champagnes. Dom Perignon, which is named after the Catholic monk who discovered how to make champagne in the late 1600s, is only made in vintage years (as stated above, vintage means the grape juice is from one single harvest, not a mix of years), it is hand turned (when champagne goes through its second fermentation in the bottle, the bottle needs to be turned a bit every day so that the yeast and sediment is shifted, eventually headed toward the neck of the bottle. Now days, this shifting is most often done in a machine, which you'll see below. For smaller or more exclusive makers, the turning is done by hand. A professional, experienced turner can turn up to 10.000 bottles in one hour!), and uses a cork instead of a bottle cap for the second fermentation.
Alas, we were not offered a tasting of the Dom Perignon, but we did get to try three different Moët champagnes:
Imperial - 1/3 of each grape - 04
2006 Vintage - 42% chardonnay, 39% pinot noir, 19% pinot meunier - 10
2004 Rosé Vintage - 45% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay, 20% pinot meunier - 07
After a really good meal at Hostellerie La Briqueterie, we headed to bed at our Epernay B&B, Parva Domus (which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Epernay - the older couple that run it are very sweet, the B&B is fantastic, and the location can't be beat). The next morning we were back on our bikes for another 40+ km day. We headed towards the town of Vertus, but on the way we stopped at the champagne house Launois Pére et Fils. Founded in 1872, this champagne house is now run by three sisters. The old family home now hosts tasting, and filled with... well, old family stuff. It was really interesting to look around after our tasting. We tasted the following four champagnes:
Reserve - 100% chardonnay - 07+
Veuve Clemence - 100% chardonnay - 07+
Dorine - 100% chardonnay - 10
Oeil de Perdrix - 100% pinot noir - 07 (I personally really liked this one and would have given it a 10, but was over-ruled by the boys).
After our tasting, we biked to Vertus, where we attempted to have a picnic in the courtyard of this 12th century church. Do you see that beautiful swan in the photo?
Well, that beautiful swan was a mean bastard. He was protecting his female partner, who was sitting on a nest a ways away. Anytime we'd sit down to eat, the swan would charge us and try to bite us. It provided a lot of comic relief, and a bit of terror.

After our scary lunch, we did two tastings at different champagne houses in Vertus:
Doyard, which is also a B&B and where we spent the night:
Premier Cru - 100% chardonnay, 30% aged in oak - 04
Grand Cru 2007 - 100% chardonnay, 100% aged in oak - 04

André Jacquart, which has only 100% chardonnay and is 100% aged in oak:
Brut Expérience - 04
Mesnil Expérience (0 dosage, which means no added sugar after the second fermentation) - 07+
Mesnil Expérience (with dosage) - 07
2006 Expérience Millésimé (0 dosage) - 07
2006 Expérience Millésimé (with dosage) - 07+
Rosé de Saignée - 80% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay, and really beautiful raspberry red color - 07+
The next day we headed off for another long ride on our way to Chatillon-sur-Marne. This was a difficult biking day for me: lots and lots and lots of hills, including one that was, really and truly, a 2 km climb without any flat sections. By the time we got to Chatillon-sur-Marne, we were very ready to sit down and enjoy some champagne! We did a tasting at Charlier et Fils:
Brut (carte noir) - 60% meunier, 20% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay, 100% oak aged - 07

After the tasting, we headed to our B&B, Moulin de l'Etang. This is another place I'd gladly stay at again. The owners of the B&B were very lively and fun, the house itself was beautiful and filled with lots of great art, and the land surrounding the house was beautiful. There was a very large pond with lots of geese and ducks, plus horses, dogs, and cats around the property.
The next day marked our final day of biking as we headed back to Reims. We first stopped at the wonderful champagne house Moussé et Fils. Moussé was my second favorite champagne maker that we visited. We met Cédric Moussé, a fourth generation champagne maker. The Moussé family has an interesting and sad story: the family has been in the region since the 1600s, and in the 1800s started growing their own grapes and selling them to larger producers. In the 1920s, Eugène Moussé (the great-grandfather of Cédric) started to make his own champagne from his grapes. At the outbreak of World World II, he and his son Edmond were sent to a concentration camp, were Eugène was killed. Fortunately Edmond survived the concentration camp, returned home, and continued the tradition of champagne making. We met with Cédric, who was kind enough to show us his facilities. In this photo you can see the very modern press Moussé uses to extract juice from the grapes.
This photo shows where the grape juice is stored for its first fermentation. There are two different types of tanks plus a few oak barrels.
Remember where I explained above that champagne bottles need to be turned every day while going through their second (in-bottle) fermentation? This is a machine that rotates many bottles at once, which is much more efficient than rotating them by hand.
After the champagne completes its second fermentation, the bottle cap is popped off, the yeast and sediment is removed (via a really cool process that involved rapidly freezing the neck of the bottle), the dosage is added (that's the little bit of topping off the bottle; the dosage consists of wine and often sugar, depending on the bottle, maker, year, vintage, etc.), and the bottle is then labeled.
After visiting his facilities, Cédric gave us a tasting:
Rosé - 92% meunier - 10
Cuvée Or Tradition - 80% pinot meunier, 20% pinot noir, organic - 7+
Vintage 2009 - 95% pinot meunier, 5% pinot noir - 10+
We really loved the Moussé champagnes, and it was the first champagne we encountered with such a high percentage of pinot meunier. Moussé makes a 100% pinot meunier, but it's a very special bottle and sells out almost before it's even made! Luckily, we have the contact of the importer in Denmark and they have a few bottles of the 100% pinot meunier.
After visiting Moussé, we biked 40 km back to Reims, where we had our final tasting at the big champagne house Taittinger. In their cave they have many different bottle sizes aging, including the pictured Nebuchadnessar bottles, which hold the equivalent of 20 normal bottles! You can see in the picture that these bottles are wrapped in plastic. As the champagne goes through its second fermentation in the bottle, a lot of gas builds up. Around 1 in 10.000 bottles explodes from the built up pressure. For normal sized bottles, the explosion isn't too serious, but when a larger bottle like a Nebachadnezzar explodes, it can set off a chain reaction and cause the surrounding bottles to explode as well! So the larger bottles are wrapped in plastic to minimize the damage and prevent a chain reaction from starting.
And now for our final tasting:
Brut Reserve - 40% chardonnay, 35% pinot noir, 25% pinot meunier - 04

After the tasting, we had an excellent meal at Le Millenaire, which was a great way to finish an absolutely amazing trip. Thank you Bob, Thomas, and Thomas for helping me ring in 30 in the best way possible!